Anomie, oil wars and US elections

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Christiana Voniati

negations blog (originally published in Politis newspaper), November 11, 2008

Voniati: American policymakers have long viewed the protection of overseas oil supplies as an essential matter of “national security”, requiring the threat and use of military force. According to one estimate, provided by the conservative National Defence Council Foundation, the “protection” of Persian Gulf oil alone costs the US Treasury $138bn per year. For Democrats and Republicans alike, spending such sums to protect foreign oil supplies is accepted as common wisdom. It is an unquestioned part of US foreign policy. Indeed, the planning of U.S. foreign policy is determined by enormous politico-strategic and (war-) industrial interests that transcend any presidential campaign. Thus, to what extent can the election of either presidential candidate challenge or influence U.S. foreign policy?

Chomsky: In this respect, there is no detectable difference between the candidates, and not much likelihood of change. The policies go back to World War II (and even before). For propaganda reasons, these virtual truisms of international affairs are angrily denied: they do not accord well with the doctrine of purity of goals that is an essential feature of propaganda. But at crucial moments they are recognized. One important illustration was after the fall of the Berlin wall. The Bush I administration immediately issued a new National Security Strategy report explaining that after the fall of the Soviet Union, everything would proceed much as before, but with new rhetoric. In particular, it would be necessary to maintain intervention forces aimed at the Middle East where the “threats to our interests” that have required direct military engagement “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door” – contrary to decades of fabrication, now shelved as useless. The same is happening today. As it becomes more difficult to sustain the pretexts for invading Iraq, and there is a threat that leaders might not understand the real reasons, they are being articulated more clearly. Thus the Washington Post editors admonished Obama that he was making a serious mistake by shifting the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, since “the country’s strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world’s largest oil reserves.” Enough with this nonsense about WMD and democracy.

Voniati: The presidential campaigns of the two candidates for the US presidency (Obama and McCain) seem to have more to do with image and spectacle that with actual political ideas and propositions. How do you comment on the commodification/fetishization of the current presidential campaign in the US?

Chomsky: One of the most astute comments on the election – and on modern electoral politics generally appeared in the London Financial Times, as I write (October 28): “One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Republicans’ largesse was Amy the stylist. Campaign finance reports showed Amy Strozzi, on loan from the reality show So You Think You Can Dance to style Ms Palin, was paid $22,800 – almost twice as much as Randy Scheunemann, Mr McCain’s foreign policy adviser.” Elections are run by the Public Relations industry, which markets candidates much as it markets commodities in TV ads. The goal of marketing is to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices, thus to undermine the markets we are taught to revere, in which informed consumers make rational choices. The same techniques are used to undermine democracy. The McCain campaign was at least honest in announcing that issues would not be important in the campaign; only personalities. Democrats basically agree, and it is true of earlier campaigns as well, a lesson taught well by the Reaganites. There are other reasons to keep issues off the agenda: on a host of major issues, both parties – that is, both factions of the business party – are well to the right of the population, as revealed by many studies of public opinion. Democracy has always been regarded as a threat by elite sectors, and understandably so. Democratic theorists, across the spectrum, have been quite frank about the matter.


Voniati: The current -deepening- global financial crisis is the worst of its kind since the Great Depression ’29; the West World has promised to support its banks with more than one trillion dollars when tens of millions of people -in the developed world alone- are suffering poverty and hunger. Only a slight percentage of the “bail-out” amount could be used to wage an international War on Poverty. Indeed, do we not have the required political will for a global “New Deal”?

Chomsky: That is quite correct. And the point does not go unnoticed in more civilized parts of the world. In Bangladesh, the journal Nation observes that “It’s very telling that trillions have already been spent to patch up leading world financial institutions, while out of the comparatively small sum of $12.3 billion pledged in Rome earlier this year, to offset the food crisis, only $1 billion has been delivered. The hope that at least extreme poverty can be eradicated by the end of 2015, as stipulated in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, seems as unrealistic as ever, not due to lack of resources but a lack of true concern for the world’s poor.” In fact, something similar is true at home. The media enthusiastically supported the bailout for the banks, but vociferously oppose aid to the failing auto industry. Reality is conveyed very well by economist Dean Baker, reviewing the radically different reactions: “After all, the average autoworker makes $56,650 a year. That’s almost as much as Robert Rubin makes in a day. Who do these autoworkers think they are?” Rubin is the chairman of the Executive Committee of Citigroup, and as Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, bears substantial responsibility for the deregulation mania that was a crucial factor in the current disaster – from which, incidentally, he gained considerably when he moved from Clinton’s Treasury Department to his present position, leading international economist Tim Canova to ask why charges are not brought against him “for his obvious violations of the Ethics in Government Act.”

Voniati: Will the financial crisis influence the global hegemony of the US?

Chomsky: It may not influence it very much. The crisis is as severe in Europe as in the US, and is expanding to the rest of the world too, though the countries that rejected the neoliberal “Washington consensus,” like China, are more insulated from the crises resulting from unregulated financial liberalization. For the present, investors seeking security are turning to the US Treasury Department, a recognition of the enormous advantages of the US in the global system. But a lot depends on whether the countries that have amassed large foreign reserves – Japan, China, Dubai, and others – will be willing to continue to accept a low return on investment by funding US debt, in order to maintain the US market on which they rely. And it is also unclear just how long an international economic order can survive in which US debt is sustained by foreign lenders.


Voniati: The rhetoric devices utilised to justify the War on Terror are closely associated with a (pseudo-)humanistic discourse: “What is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight.”[Bush, 20/09/01]. Thus, the WoT is claimed to be waged in the name of humanity itself, the denotation being that the enemy does not pertain to the human but to absolute evil. Similarly, Bin Laden and other prominent Jihadists’ rhetoric relies on an equally Manichaean prehension of the world. To what extent then, would you say, that this global war is rather a “clash of fundamentalisms/barbarities”?

Chomsky: The same rhetoric was used by the Reagan administration when it declared its “war on terror” 20 years earlier: it claimed to be combating state-directed international terrorism, “the plague of the modern age,” “a return to barbarism in our time,” etc. The first “war on terror” has been eliminated from history, because it quickly became a vicious terrorist war that destroyed much of Central America, southern Africa, and beyond. Jihadi terrorism is quite real, and is a serious threat, greatly enhanced by the Bush administration reaction to it. One illustration is that global terrorism increased by a factor of seven after the invasion of Iraq. More generally, the jihadi movement was highly critical of bin Laden’s adventurism and criminality after 9/11, but instead of using the opportunity to split the movement and mobilize opposition to bin Laden, Bush decided to act as his recruiting agent. The same respected clerics who were issuing fatwas against bin Laden were soon issuing them against Bush. Terrorism is a crime. The right response to crimes is to identify the perpetrators, apprehend them, and bring them to justice. A more far-reaching response, particularly significant in the case of terrorism, is to understand the grievances to which the terrorists appeal, and if they are legitimate, as is often the case, to address them. That is how terrorism was ended in Northern Ireland, to take one recent example. But such measures were never contemplated for a moment. The reasons have to do with the first question: control of global energy supplies and world dominance generally.

Voniati: It is often argued that the US-led “War on Terror” has not been effective in achieving its chief goal, to protect freedom. It is also argued that the real antidote to terrorism would be to combat the very structures of injustice (political, economic, social, historical) that nurture terrorism. Because “terrorism” does not consist in ahistorical Islamic fundamentalism, but -apart from religious fanaticism- it does have a political agenda. How do you commend?

Chomsky: The question cannot be raised, because the goal was never to protect freedom. Stalin and Hitler also claimed to be protecting freedom. Such pronouncements of leaders are predictable, and therefore carry no information. The real antidote to terrorism is exactly as you say. Furthermore, that is well known, and the advice would be followed if eradicating terrorism were a high priority. There is substantial evidence that it is not.

Note incidentally that this entire discussion is seriously misleading because we are following Western convention in restricting the concept of terrorism to THEIR terrorism against US, and excluding OUR terrorism against THEM, often far more severe. Reagan’s “war on terror” is one of innumerable illustrations.


Voniati: The UN Council imposes continuous sanctions on Iran, on which it has not yet had concrete proof that it is using its nuclear technology to build a weapon. On the other hand the US has agreed to sell nuclear technology to India, a country that has not yet complied any of the nuclear international conventions. How do you comment on that?

Chomsky: That understates the matter. The US intelligence community, a year ago, determined with “high confidence” that Iran has not had a weapons program since 2003. The US-India agreement was a sharp attack on the non-proliferation regime, undertaken for geostrategic and commercial reasons – that latter openly acknowledged. It is another illustration of how low even human survival ranks among the priorities of leaders.

We can add that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were developed without impediment thanks to the decision of the Reagan administration to support the most brutal of Pakistan’s dictators, Zia ul-Haq, and his steps to strengthen radical Islamist forces in Pakistan. And of course nuclear weapons in the hands of Washington’s Israeli client, also not a signer of the NPT, are considered unproblematic. No less important is the fact that the Bush administration has taken substantial steps of its own to undermine the NPT and to increase the risk of nuclear war, matters that I have written about elsewhere and cannot go into here. That is why leading US strategic analysts have warned that Bush’s aggressive militarism was leading the way to “ultimate doom,” and called for a coalition of peace-loving nations to counter it – led by China! (John Steinbrunner and Nancy Gallagher, in the highly respectable journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).


Voniati: Despite the deployment of up to 150,000 US troops in Iraq and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars (3 trillion according to Joseph Stiglitz), Iraq is a country in chaos and U.S.’s “civilising mission” has long proved to be an outrageous fiasco. As far as human rights and the respect for human life and dignity are concerned, is the current situation in Iraq better or worse in relation to Saddam’s regime?

Chomsky: The “civilizing mission” has been compared by Iraqis and knowledgeable outside observers to the Mongol invasions. It was not simply a fiasco, but also a textbook illustration of what the Nuremberg Tribunal called “the supreme international crime” of aggression, which differs from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows – sectarian warfare, massive flight of refugees, hundreds of thousands killed, and all the other horrors. It is difficult to compare monstrosities, and pointless. If the US and its allies had been concerned to overthrow the regime of their long-time friend and ally Saddam Hussein, they would not have imposed vicious sanctions that were described as “genocidal” by the distinguished international diplomats appointed to administer them, who resigned in protest. The sanctions devastated Iraqi civilian society, strengthened the tyrant, and compelled the population to rely on him for survival, very likely saving him from the fate of Ceausescu, Suharto, Marcos, and other monsters supported strongly by the West until the last moments of their brutal regimes. These topics, incidentally, are “off the agenda” in the West.


Voniati: Which, to your opinion, are the main factors that lead the defeat of the US and NATO in the Afghanistan war?

Chomsky: It is premature to speak of a defeat. There are many reasons for the failures, as there were for the failures of the Russian invasion in the 1980s. In that connection it may be useful to pay attention to the recent report from Afghanistan by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a specialist on Afghanistan who was UK ambassador to Moscow from 1988-92 and then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. After a recent visit to Afghanistan, during which he interviewed a wide range of people, he concludes that most Afghans are “contemptuous of President Hamid Karzai, whom they compared to Shah Shujah, the British puppet installed during the first Afghan war. Most preferred Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist president, who attempted to reconcile the nation within an Islamic state, and was butchered by the Taliban in 1996: DVDs of his speeches are being sold on the streets. Things were, they said, better under the Soviets. Kabul was secure, women were employed, the Soviets built factories, roads, schools and hospitals, Russian children played safely in the streets. The Russian soldiers fought bravely on the ground like real warriors, instead of killing women and children from the air. Even the Taliban were not so bad: they were good Muslims, kept order, and respected women in their own way. These myths may not reflect historical reality, but they do measure a deep disillusionment with the `coalition’ and its policies.”

This important report in the London Financial Times received no mention, to my knowledge, in the United States, though the FT is of course widely read.